PRISON bosses were warned urgent action was needed to avoid a suicide - months before a vulnerable woman prisoner was found dead in her cell at a high security North-East prison.

Louise Giles, 20, was months into a life sentence for murder at HMP Durham when she was found hanged, in August 2005.

An inquest into her death was told Giles was just one of six Category A woman prisoners on HMP Durham's I Wing, which was in the process of being closed down. A jury was also told of the "oppressive" conditions on the wing.

Nick Stanage, representing the family, said an inspection team from the Prison Service headquarters in London led to a report, in March 2005, concluding the "distress levels were so high there was a real risk of suicide unless significant changes were made quickly".

The contents of the reports emerged during the cross examination of Jenny Mooney - who at one time was temporary acting governor of the prison. Ms Mooney was also and head of the prison's women's wing until May 2005.

Ms Mooney said she was surprised by the conclusions, but agreed with Mr Stanage the findings were "ringing an alarm bell in the clearest and loudest possible way".

An earlier inspection said it considered that, because of mental health and psychological well-being issues, moving the inmates from the women's wing was becoming urgent.

The inquest jury earlier heard that HMP Durham previously had a women's prison within the main prison building - housing about 120 inmates.

A decision was made in 2004 to close that unit and the majority had been relocated to other establishments by the end of the year. But a handful remained on I Wing.

The jury was told of the concerns expressed by a Low Newton prison officer, who had been brought in to work on I Wing, in April 2005.

Mr Stanage said: "He expressed concerns about the oppressive physical conditions, the lack of continuity of staff, the minimum input of health care and the lack of leadership and management on the unit."

Giles was 19 when she was involved in an incident outside a nightclub, in which 23-year-old Helen Hay died.

She was jailed for life for murder at Sheffield Crown Court in May 2005, with a minimum tariff of 14 years.

It later emerged that she had become a penpal of Soham killer Ian Huntley.

The Chester-le-Street hearing continues.